Monthly Archives: July 2023

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 58

“The best choice when someone demands that you to explain yourself is not to.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame providing legal council to his third husband.

There were a thousand question people wanted to ask me. That was understandable. They’d all missed out on most of the interesting stuff I’d done on the other side of the rift at the heart of the Clockwork Monster. 

From their perspective, I’d been compressed and then dragged into a copper colored crystal only to emerge…hmm, I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in the Clockwork Cosmos exactly. It couldn’t have been too long. They were all still standing around. So maybe fifteen minutes tops? If that was true though it meant time didn’t move at the same speed in the two worlds. It couldn’t have because I was sure I’d spent at least an hour sobbing onto Trina’s shoulder.

And that hadn’t been anywhere near enough.

The sheer impossibility of seeing her again would have convinced me I’d hallucinated the whole thing except for one small detail – the shredded clothing I wore still carried her scent and there was no way I could have hallucinated that.

The thing was though that none of the people around me knew any of that, and as far as I was concerned it could stay like that for each and every one of them who did not share a roof with me. 

Well, each and every one, with one exception.

“I understand you would dearly like answers to a variety of questions,” Doxle said. “Questions which are no doubt of vital importance given the rather shocking events of the day.”

“So you agree that she must be properly debriefed then?” Instructor Malton asked, stepping up to the take place of ‘overly self-important authority figure’ which Sir Ulgro was wisely in the process of fleeing from.

“Oh, of course, of course,” Doxle said. “I shall be delighted to share the full outcome of her debriefing once it’s completed.”

“We do not have time to wait on this,” Malton said.

“Then I shall be swift and punctual in producing the sort of quality results I am renowned for,” Doxle said and turned to me and I saw Jalaren sigh and drop head into his palm. “Lady Riverbond please provide a succinct and yet comprehensive answer to all questions which the Academy staff might pose to you.”

For a second I thought he intended for me to make an answer to that request – which most definitely was not going to happen. He didn’t wait for me though, instead smoothly continuing on as he turned to face Malton and the rest of the Academy staff who were present.

“She says, in summary, ‘no comment’. Shall I provide a full transcript?” Doxle asked with a cheerful tilt of his head.

“That will be enough Imperial Advisor,” Jalaren said, and added in a still audible mutter, “The last thing we need is to give you a chance to start hurling actual curses you reprobate.”

Everyone pretended not to hear that last part, but I had to confess I was rather curious to know what kind of curses Doxle knew. It seemed like a handy thing for dealing with Imperial authority figures if Jalaren’s reaction was anything to go by.

“Excellent! Then Lady Riverbond and I have some business to attend to before the close of day,” Doxle said and took me by the shoulders.

My housemates looked a bit crestfallen at that. I could smell the eagerness they each had to find out what had happened and how I’d apparently murdered the Clockwork Monster from the inside.

I mean killing things if you can get inside them isn’t usually terribly difficult, but I could see why they’d be curious about the details. I suspected my answers were not going to slake their curiosity though. If anything, learning about Hanalee and Roldo’s plight raised a lot more questions than it answered, and if I dared to tell them about Trina they were going to question literally everything they knew about me, starting with my sanity and probably ending with their own.

I’d expected Doxle to lead me back to the house where they’d get the chance to catch up with us and pepper me with at least a few questions before Doxle dragged me wherever it was he was taking me. As usual though, I was wrong.

Outside of the Testing Arena, Doxle led me up a series of unfamiliar corridors and stairs which seemed to climb higher than any of the buildings in the Academy rose.

“Where are we going?” I asked after we passed the thirteenth floor and were still climbing.

“It’s a surprise!” Doxle said with a brighter than usual glint of mischief in his flaming eyes, “though I did mention it to you earlier.”

I would say that I wracked my brains to remember what he was talking about, but we’d climbed an awful lot of stairs and I’d literally been through the meat grinder – several meat grinders in fact – so my available brainpower was pretty much sitting at “stuffed hamster” levels.

“It gonna take us long to get there?” I asked instead of trying to remember or guess. All I really cared about was getting a few quiet moments to touch up the various organs in my everywhere, or at least the ones which I’d more or less fudged in putting myself back together after the hundredth time I got squished to jelly in the gears of the Clockwork Cosmos.

“Compared to teleportation, yes, an eternity,” Doxle said. “Compared to horseback? No. We’ll be there in a blink compared to horseback.”

“If those are both options, why aren’t we teleporting?” I asked as we hit the landing on Floor 15. 

“We have neither the time for teleportation, nor the magic to waste on horses,” Doxle said, looking no more fatigue as we reached the Floor 16 landing than he had when we started.

I parsed what he said and it sounded exactly backwards but I knew it would give him too satisfaction if I asked him to explain it, so I kept climbing in silence and worked it out on my own.

From what I’d learned about rifts, I had to imagine that setting up a long range teleportation effect would require all sorts of precise calculations and preparation on both ends to avoid the sort of accidents which involved leaving parts of oneself strewn across a far wider area than parts are intended to be strewn across. 

Conversely, horses took relatively little preparation, but if we needed them to cover a vast distance and back in the space of a single night (I was presuming he intended to have me back in time for tomorrow’s Academic Idiocy) then we would need to enchant them to the point where they grew wings and glowed in order for them to be fast enough. Since that was just a wee bit outside my wheelhouse, I had to assume that Doxle found the prospect more taxing than whatever travel method he had in mind.

“We have only a few flights more to go. Ten perhaps I think? Or was it twenty? Apologies, I lose count all the time and I can never remember all the factors in how it’s calculated,” he said as though I had even a tiny chance of following what he was talking about.

I replied with silence. I didn’t need to know how many more flights it was. My human girl body was better at dealing with fatigue toxins than it really should have been and in the semi-unrefined state it was in, I was moving more by magic than actual muscle effort (which I took as a personal failing, even though I had plenty of magic left to work with – accepting a sloppy shapeshift lead to sloppiness with all my magic and that offended my deepest artistic sensibilities).

“The Imperial Knights weren’t entirely wrong,” Doxle said. “At least not in terms of being concerned over what you went through. About everything else they were, as is tragically usual these days, as determinedly wrong as it is possible for them to be.”

“Why?” I asked and clarified the question in the tiny hope that it would yield the answer I was looking for, “why are they like that? Why did they want to duel Idrina to the death? Why is everyone here so focused on being as horrible as they possibly can be?”

Doxle laughed as we reached the next landing.

“Ask that of a dozen people and you will find thirteen true and contradictory answers,” he said. “Is it because corruption and government by overwhelming self interest has crept through the Empire in the centuries since the Great Calamity? Or is it that the Empire was always corrupt and driven by small minded tyrants guided by nothing more than the lust for wealth and ever more power? Perhaps it’s that those who crave power are the ones who most seek it out and over time have managed to erode all of the oversights and safeguards placed on their abilities to abuse that power? Or were those safeguards ever in place at all? Was there ever a time when those with power sought to create something greater than an edifice to themselves or is the view that the past was somehow a better time simply a matter of clinging to the memories of when we were ignorant of the evils we do to one another?”

He danced up the last few steps to the next landing and paused beside a door there. We’d passed several doors already, most landings had them, but this one was different than the rest. It looked identical to them but something beyond it set every nerve on my skin alight with anticipation.

“The truth, as I prefer to believe it to be, is in all of those things, the more contradictory, the better,” Doxle said. “And I know, as an answer to your question, that was essentially useless, so I shall offer a simpler option; they are frightened little rabbits, aware that they don’t deserve the power they hold, and desperate to keep their grip on it despite that.”

His simple answer wasn’t terribly helpful either, but I could appreciate that he wasn’t pretending the Knights or the Instructors were as noble or important as they insisted we believe them to be.

“Is this our floor?” I asked and looked up to see how many more flights there were to go.

That was a horrible, terrible mistakes and I immediately wished I hadn’t.

What was above us wasn’t more stairs. Or it wasn’t only more stairs. Each flight further up rose into infinity above us. Infinities piled on top of infinities. Light from an endless, bottomless, limitless number of realities all crashing into my eyes at once.  The images burned brighter than the sun, and closing my eyes did nothing to diminish the stabbing glare which seemed intent on obliterating thought as easily as it had sight.

“Are you well?” Doxle asked.

“Just fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

I felt him put the back of his hand on my forehead.

“I suspect you might like the use of your eyes back?” he said and placed two cool fingertips over my eyelids.

The scorching pain, and the exact details of what I’d seen, faded away as he removed his hand, leaving me able to see once more.

“Apologies,” he said. “What’s above us isn’t something you should be able to perceive.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said, which was exactly as useful as silence would have been.”In answer to your earlier question however, yes, we are here.”

“And where exactly is here?” I asked, waiting for him to open the door.

“We’ve come to speak with the holder of the Riverbond family’s escrow,” Doxle said.

“They’re someone terrifying aren’t they?” I asked. It was an unnecessary question given the magic I could smell leaking out past the sealed doorway.

“Oh, she will be delighted to hear that,” Doxle said and opened the door.

Beyond it lay an observatory which was covered in ice.

Frozen along the walls were shelves of books, and on desks pushed to the outer ring of the room sat all manner of different candles caught mid-flicker and yet still aflame even though the ice had covered them whole.

None of that held my attention though. What I latched onto almost instantly were the twelve figures arrayed within the most ornately drawn magical confinement circle I’d ever heard of.

They stood as statues, their bodies converted from flesh and blood to a deep blue ice within the paler blue of the frozen crystals they were trapped within. 

All of them except one.

She was as frozen as the rest, but unlike them, she retained the appearance of flesh and blood.

And she was alive.

I don’t know why the scent of her made me want to flee the room, the city, and possibly the nation and the world itself, but I took solace in the fact that she couldn’t hurt me if the ice continued to hold her.

“You look like you’ve had an exciting day,” the woman in the ice said from about two feet behind me. “Take a seat. Relax. Your Empress commands it.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 57

“We are born without a thought in our heads. From there we venture forth, discovering wonders as grand as our own toes and as simple as the infinite majesty of creation and all the worlds within it. Though we strive ever on, learning from all of the experiences which befall us, we nevertheless will fall short of a complete understanding of the world around us and our place with in it. This should be a cause for celebration and rejoicing though, for what is adventure if not venturing into the unknown and what are we without adventure?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame at the funeral for Xalea Greensdale, his first Pact Bond

It wasn’t that I was facing my mirror image that froze me in place. It wasn’t that the girl in front of me had a trio of friends with her and all of them were radiating a light from which the Clockwork Cosmos recoiled. It wasn’t even the heartbreakingly familiar twist of her smile. It was how she smelled.

Despite the oil and gas and ground metal stench that filled the air of the Clockwork Cosmos, her scent came through with the blinding clarity of a lightning bolt.

“Trina?” I wasn’t able to do more than whisper the word and the crashing and turning of the world of gears and pistons swallowed it up as it tumbled from my lips.

But she heard it.

She heard me.

Except that wasn’t possible

Trina was dead.

She was gone and she’d been gone for my whole life and she was never coming back because she couldn’t come back because if she could come back then why hadn’t she come back already and she hadn’t come back because I’d failed.

I’d failed and I’d failed and I’d failed. Everything I’d tried had failed, and I shouldn’t be here, and if I wasn’t here then she wouldn’t be…

“Hey,” my sister said. “We’re gonna be okay.”

And that undid me.

I was newborn in a world where I was an anathema.

I was orphaned, parents and family torn apart in front of my eyes.

I was hiding, pretending to be a small little fuzzy thing I’d caught only the tiniest glimpse of. I didn’t have a right to wear its shape, and holding onto just one form was so, so hard. My skin was suffocating me, and my innards had no idea what to be.

I had no idea what to be.

I wanted to change, to lash out, to melt, to go home, to join my family.

I don’t remember being picked up by Trina’s father, but I can recall the gentle kindness he showed to a lost and terrified wolf pup.

I don’t remember being carried back to the Riverbond estate, but I can recall the smells from the kitchen and how they hit my nose, the one thing I’d gotten right, like the blessing of all the angels on high.

I don’t remember the space in the kennel that had been cleared for me, but I do remember my sister finding me.

“I want that one,” she’d said.

“But that’s not a normal puppy honey. That one’s a wild beast who’s going to need a lot of training,” he’d said.

“She’s mine,” she’s said. “I’m her big sister!”

And then she was. It had been strange being picked up by someone not terrible larger than me. I’d fought against it. I’d tried to scratch her. I’d tried to bite her. Not because I knew what I was doing but because I had claws and teeth and I didn’t know what else to do with them.

“Hey,” she’d said. “We’re gonna be okay.”

And she’d been right.

I’m not sure how long I clung to her then, and I definitely had no idea how long I clung to her in the Clockwork Cosmos. Probably too long, but I couldn’t help myself.

She wasn’t the same.

Her body wasn’t entirely solid, and it wasn’t flesh and blood, but it was hers and that was all that mattered.

“How?” I finally asked once I’d cried out an ocean or two of tears.

“That’s a long story,” Trina said. “And we don’t have a lot of light left.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No! You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” she said. “But we should leave here while there’s still time.”

“Right, right!” I said, wiping the last tears from my eyes. “I tried to open a rift though. It’s too tough here.”

“It’s because you’re trying to bring  the dead back to life,” Trina said. “You should be able to get yourself across no problem.”

“The dead?” I asked, completely forgetting for a moment about the two soul prison gems I was carrying.

“We can take them off your hands and get them to a better place than this,” Trina said because turning to address the clockwork sky and adding “No offense!”

None taken, the Clockwork Cosmos said as it pressed in on the ever diminishing light Trina and her friends were radiating.

“I don’t…” I started to say and struggled to decide how to finish. There were innumerable things I didn’t understand and an endless number of questions I needed to ask. After a moment though I collected my thoughts and found only one that really mattered, “Can I go with you?”

She hugged me.

Dammit. That wasn’t playing fair and it wasn’t the answer I wanted.

“We can talk again,” she said. “Your friend Yarrin can find a book in Academy’s restricted section on performing seances and the twins have the right magic to make it happen.”

“But…” I started, again unsure of how to continue.

“I know,” she said, and touched her forehead to mine. “It’s not fair. It never has been. But I am so, so proud of you.”

I didn’t break down.

I was exceptionally proud of that.

I didn’t break down and I handed Hanalee and Roldo’s soul prisons over to her. She took them and placed them in a pouch she was wearing. It was almost easier to wonder where she’d found clothes in the afterlife than it was to process anything else, but even that thought was pushed away so that I could just drink in her presence for the few precious moments we had.

“You’ll be able to get back now. You’ll be safe,” she said.

It helped that she didn’t let go of my arms. She didn’t want to leave either. I needed to know that.

Sadly, I also knew that she needed to leave. She was growing dimmer by the moment. I had no idea what that meant specifically, the general idea that her protections against the grinding gears around us was diminishing was pretty easy to work out.

“What about you?” I asked. She was supposed to have been safe with me, the idea of parting from her when she might still be in danger was soul searingly intolerable.

“As soon as you’re back, we’ll leave too,” she said.

“You can go first,” I said.

“No! I left you feeling terrible for the last ten years!” she said. “I can at least make sure you get back safe and sound this time, and then we can talk for real later.”

“I…I don’t want to leave you,” I said.

“You didn’t,” she said. “You’ve given me so much more than you can know. But, for now, go! Please! Be safe!”

I hesitated. 

Did I want safety?

Given where I was standing that did not seem like a concern that I’d affixed a high degree of value to.

Was my sister important to me?

No. That was the wrong question.

Did her wishes matter? Did I still respect her for who she was?

Phrased like that, it wasn’t hard to free my soul from the block of ice it had frozen into.

“I will come right back and hunt you down if you don’t answer the seance,” I said.

“I know you will. Just like you know I’ll be there.”

“I love you.”

“Ten years and we’ve never really been apart you know,” she said and pulled me in for another hug. “And we never really will be.”

I blinked at her, not understanding her words but hearing and feeling the truth in them anyways.

“Now go! And no more losing body parts in here!” she said.

“No promises,” I said with a shrug and turned around to find a spot at the edge of the radiant globe we were standing in.

Tearing a rift back to the material realm was just as easy as she’d suggested it would be. I made it look harder than I had to as I dragged myself out of it though, mostly because I didn’t know what kind of audience was waiting for me and I didn’t want people to be entirely aware of how much I’d worked out about making and closing rifts to otherworlds.

Also, collapsing into a (not literally) boneless heap on the ground and responding to the first fourteen questions asked of me with an inarticulate moaning turned out to be about as much as I had the physical and mental energy to manage.

“Well, see now, I told you the matter wasn’t anything to raise a fuss over,” Doxle said.

He arrived sometime after question thirteen and had been, I think, checking me over for signs of life.

“She has, apparently, survived a trip into another world. That is well worth ‘a fuss’,” someone Imperial-Knight-ish sounding said.

“She also shut down whatever the hell that thing was that you unleashed on all of us.” That was Ilyan. He didn’t sound happy. I found that pleasing both because it meant he’d recovered from the hit he’d taken and because being angry at the Imperial Knights seemed like a really good idea to me.

“She is able to hear you,” I said, reconstructing my jaw and tongue into their proper shapes in order to do so.

Even an ‘easy’ passage back through a rift was a bit ‘bone crunchy’ it turned out.

Rolling over onto my side, I glanced around in the direction I could smell Yarrin’s scent coming from. He wasn’t there. Just like Mellina wasn’t there, despite her scent coming from the same location.

That filled me with a strange sort of relief. It couldn’t have been a good thing that they were hiding out, but given that they weren’t visible it meant that it was less likely anyone would be able to mess with them before I got Yarrin to find the forbidden book I needed him to look up.

“Perhaps ‘she’ would care to explain what ‘she’ did then?” the Imperial Knight asked.


That was not the answer I was supposed to give.

“What do you mean no? You refuse me?” The Imperial Knight was able to parse a two letter answer. Good for him.

“Yes,” I said, seeing if he could manage three letters.

He started sputtering and began to reach for me, some form of coercion or other mayhem clearly in mind.

“You will want to consider that action carefully,” Doxle said with the sort of deceptively disinterested weariness which promises peril untold to those who fail to heed the warning offered.

To his credit, the Imperial Knight was able to process that in time and paused his hands a good several feet from me.

“It seems to me that this has been a rather eventful first day of Imperial training,” Doxle said. “Jalaren, did you have more classes planned, or have there been enough lessons taught today?”

“As all of my students have fled, well almost all, it appears I have very little to say on the matter. Perhaps Sir Ulgro disagrees though?”

The Imperial Knight who’d been reaching for me straightened back up and turned to face Jalaren. “The trial we came here for has been concluded. As acting squad commander, I can say our work here is done and we will be departing forthwith.”

He looked like he wanted to add more to that – probably a jibe about how he’d be investigating me further or something like that. I wasn’t under an illusion that a few words from Doxle had resolved the matter. Sir Ulgro was apparently smart enough to know when to retreat which meant he was also smart enough to come after me from a more oblique angle than a head on charge through an Imperial Advisor. 

That added him to the list of secret enemies I had, which seemed to be growing at an impressive pace given that I’d only been in Middlerun for a few days so far.

In hindsight, I probably should have tried to make even more enemies, after all it wasn’t like I was going to leave even one brick standing on top of another once I was done with the place.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 56

“The solution to one problem, in my experience, is often the precipitating factor in the next one’s origin. No matter how clever a trick you devise, there is always some angle to it which will catch you unawares. It’s enough to convince one to never bother with trickery or problem solving at all but that would be unconscionable! Better to be cast out with the trash than to forfeit our place as the architects of our own fate!”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, face down drunk in a nameless alley and lecturing a rat which happened by.

I was going through a lot, literally a lot since an entire universe seemed to be doing its best to crush me into dust, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard Hanalee correctly.

“You died four years ago? How did you wind up here? Is this where your magic comes from?” It wasn’t easy finding moments when I could take a form that had both a mouth and lungs to be able to form those words, but Hana seemed to be able to follow me nonetheless.

“No, I hadn’t found out what my magic was yet,” Hanalee said, her voice still filling the cosmos to its farthest extents.

“Me either,” the first voice said.

“I thought souls went somewhere else after they died. Somewhere beyond the Transcendent planes?” 

That seemed to be the common wisdom on why even the strongest healers couldn’t raise the dead, though I suspected asking Doxle for clarification would probably be a good idea, assuming I survived the Clockwork Cosmos trying to squish me.

“We were elsewhere,” Hanalee said. “They did something that pulled us back to here, and then they locked us in these crystals.”

“They pulled you out of heaven!?” I hadn’t even bothered much with any of the religious practices in the Empire. Grammy said they were all parasites and tyrants and I hadn’t seen a lot to convince me otherwise, but I was reasonably sure that most of them consider a soul’s final destination to be sacrosanct and beyond the reach of anything mortals could meddle with.

“We weren’t in heaven,” the first voice said. “And we weren’t in hell either. We were,” he stammered for a bit. “Elsewhere.”

That was both theologically profound and something I absolutely didn’t have time to worry about.

“Who are ‘they’, and what did they do you when they got you here?” I asked.

I needed their answers, their dialog to help me stay focused on who I was, but, much though I wanted to, I really couldn’t wait any longer.

Before anyone could answer, I started to change again.

This time I wasn’t running away though.

I wasn’t even trying to survive.

What I was attempting was much harder than that.

Letting my flesh turn to metal and my mind sink down into the click-clack-click of the machinery around me, I tried to fit in.

It is difficult at first.

To hold rigid and not change.

To be one small, undifferentiated piece of a whole so vast I couldn’t even be said to exist within it.

I yearned to change

I yearned to become something, anything else.

This was not who I am.

This was not what I am.


It was not.

But it was what I must be.

In that moment.

I hated it.

I hated it more than anything.

This was a terrible plan.

I wasn’t supposed be there.

I couldn’t help them.

I couldn’t help myself.

I was being infected by the world.

I was.

I was.

I was turning.

I ticked.

I was turned.

I turned others.

It was what I did.

It was what I was.

I shattered.

I was weak.

I was not what was needed.

I shattered again and was reformed.

I smiled!

I changed!

Perfection was not attained.

I was not metal.

I was weak! Gloriously, deliciously weak!

I shattered again and again, stasis refused over and over because I was not what was needed!

“Can you still hear us?” Hanalee asked.

“I can,” I said, opening eyes that were lenses of glass ringed in copper. 

I was turned and I turned others, and in turning I heard a voice I could finally understand.

Intruder, it said.

Yes, I replied.

Destroyer? it asked.

Repair, I replied.

Perfection? it asked. 

No. I can’t restore make things perfect. Perfection is anathema. I am anathema to you.

Destruction? it asked.

No. Repair. Intruder removal.


With the other intruders.

You are one.

They are two. Hidden. Encysted in gems. Changing you.

Cannot see that.

I can.

And I could! In assuming a form that connected me to the Clockwork Cosmos, I’d been able to bridge the gap between us so that the whole world around me looked different.

On one level I was still aware that the entire cosmos was filled with nothing but machinery. Where the gears allowed passage though, I could see, peering through what should have been solid physical structures as though they were as transparent as air.

In the center of the sphere I was standing in the rift back home lay. The sphere was so vast that the rift was more distant than the moon, but if I dropped my current transformation, if I stopped acknowledging the Clockwork Cosmos’s laws, I knew it would be easily within reach. 

Opposite the rift, at the end of a long hallway, a tall column with various embedded jewels lay.

I glanced back and forth between the Dimensional Rift and the Central Control Mechanism and tried to puzzle out how I could be standing on the inner surface of a sphere when I looked at one of them and at the end of a long corridor when I looked at the other. I felt a tug in my mind as I tried to work it out and saw that understanding did lay within my grasp. I simply had too many memories showing me what real things looked like in my human universe for me to give myself over to the Clockwork Cosmos enough to grasp the deeper parts of its essence.

Fortunately I didn’t need to. Not to save Hanalee and her companion. All I needed to do was walk down the corridor and pry their gems loose from the central mechanism they were tied into.

Unfortunately, someone didn’t seem inclined to allow that.

“Sorry!” Hanalee said as machinery began to tear itself loose from the walls and ceiling, reconfiguring into a thousand fatal tools for the world to hurl against me.

“This is us,” the first voice said. “We’re doing this. But we don’t want to.”

I faded back into the machinery, my thoughts overwhelmed with the demands of purpose. Fight. I turned so that we could fight.

Fight the intruder.

Who was me.

I shattered again and came back to myself once more.

As I did the assault resumed.

“Can you stop? For just a moment?” I asked, relying on natural dodging and shapeshifting to buy enough time to hear the answer.

So of course it turned out to be one I didn’t want to hear.

“No. We can’t. We bound by more than the crystals,” Hanalee said. “They put something into us. Like rules that we have to follow.”

“What happens if you break them?” I asked, still hoping there was going to be a peaceful way to resolve this.

“What happens if you break gravity?” the first voice asked.

I sighed. Of course it was those sort of rules. The magical kind. The kind that Hana and her companion would destroy themselves on long before they managed to make one even budge a little.

Can you help? I asked, shifting into resonance with the Clockwork Cosmos again.

We see them now. Through you. But we cannot help, the Clockwork Cosmos said. Their laws are not ours. 

Which meant I simply had reach them on my own!

It wasn’t simple.

I took the sort of wounds which would have killed all of my housemates ten times over and when I the reached the Central Control Mechanism I burned the moment I touched it.

If it sounds like I was having a miserable time of things, then I’m failing to convey how much worse than that it really was.

The absolute worst part though? It wasn’t the Clockwork Cosmos trying to kill me. I could respect that. I was a poison inside it, my very existence a corrosive force that it simply couldn’t tolerate. 

No the worst part was the set of glyphs someone had inscribed on the gemstones which housed Hanalee and Roldo. The moment I touched then (with my burned and sliced hands), the damn things tried to eat me.

“That’s not us!” Roldo said.

“It’s why we’re stuck in here,” Hanalee said. “But what is it doing to you? You said you weren’t dead?”

“I’m not,” I said, grabbing onto a nearby spinning gear to help drag me away from the gemstones. It didn’t exactly work, but the force pulling me away did keep me from getting drawn in any further.

“These things can’t absorb humans though,” Roldo said. “They’d eat the handlers who’ve been coming in to check on us if they could.”

“Handlers?” I asked, trying to a.) keep my arms from being ripped off and b.) not lose my grip on the gear which was keeping me from being absorbed by Hanalee’s gem.

“Yeah. There are humans who come in here and do things with the Control Mechanism. They’ve been changing what we can do. What we have to do too. We’re not, I don’t know if we’re people still,” Hana said in a voice that was so much smaller than my own I barely recognized it as hers.

“You smell like people to me,” I said through gritted teeth, struggling fruitlessly to pull free of the gem. 

I considered morphing back to being a gear. The gems obviously weren’t absorbing their surroundings, so a gear would be safe from them. Or it would be if they didn’t already have a piece of me to tug on the rest with.

“We smell?” Roldo asked. “But we’re inside these things. There’s no air getting out at all.”

“I have a really good sense of smell,” I said and finally admitted to myself that my grip was simply not strong enough to pull me free.

It was however strong enough to tear a couple fingers off my hand.

In theory, I knew I wasn’t going to miss them. I grew them back before the pain really had time to register. What did worry me was the idea of leaving any bit of myself behind in a realm where I absolutely was not supposed to be.

“Okay. That sucked. It looks like I can’t touch those things,” I said and mentally kicked myself for missing the obvious answer. “If only I had some kind of tool that would let me pry them loose and maybe break them open so you could get free and not bother this nice cosmos with your whole icky existence thing.”

Will these help? The nice cosmos asked as a pair of long handled pliers landed in my outstretched hand.

I’m sorry we can never get along, you seem like a fantastic place, I said, hefting the wonderfully sturdy pliers to make sure they weren’t going to eat me too. I can at least do this for you though.

When dealing with weird magical artifacts, pliers, it turns out, are a really good idea. In place of ripping off body parts and a desperate scramble for freedom, it took me about twenty seconds of work with the pliers to have the two gems ripped off the Control Mechanism.

“I don’t want to leave anything here,” I said, trying to imagine the kind of damage an alien thing like the Control Mechanism could do if it ran amuck.

With the gems removed, it slowly powered down.

And then got devoured by the Clockwork Cosmos.

Which was great! Problem solved! 

Well, probably solved. 

Of course it did raise one tiny additional issue.

“Where did the rift go?” Hanalee asked.

Because, of course, it had closed completely. It looked the path home had been held open by the machine which I had just stripped of protections and allowed the realm we were standing into reduce to scrap. Not my best move, but given my limited options I was not going to beat myself up over it.

Not when I had a whole cosmos ready to do the work for me.

Apologies, the Clockwork Cosmos said as it resumed trying to erase me from existence.

No, no, I understand, I said, racing to get to the point where the rift had been. If I was going to have to tear open a new rift it seemed like the best spot would be where one had just been.

I still maintain that was a good theory, especially since I didn’t know that dimensions tend to ‘heal’ the wounds from rifts to be stronger than they’d been to prevent a repeat performance.

“We’re going to get dissolved!” Roldo said, and given the trouble I was having breaking a path back to our world I couldn’t say he was wrong.

“We might be able to help with that,” a new arrival said.

I turned to face our rescuers and found myself face-to-face with someone who was wearing almost my exact features.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 55

“Every so often one finds oneself in uncharted waters, be it on a battlefield in a conflict one never intended to become involved with or a social situation where all of the players and their standings are a mystery. The key thing to remember in such moments is that none of whatever dramatics are playing out are about them. They, whoever they are, don’t really matter. What matters is you.

Are two armies fighting over something incomprehensible? That’s clearly irrelevant since they should be fighting over you. Are people talking about things you have no idea about? Foolish lackwits, why are they wasting their time when what they should be discussing is you!

Absolutely no one will understand or appreciate the wisdom of this viewpoint on life, but that’s not your problem, it’s theirs, and one which you should at every opportunity encourage them correct.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame providing the keynote speech at the 132nd Commencement of the Imperial Diplomatic Corp.

It’s funny how otherworldly, screaming crystals at the heart of a monster aren’t the sort of thing people are inclined to run towards. In fact, as it turns out, exposing something which emitted that particular combination of stench and soul chilling wails was an excellent means of getting a large number of people to vacate the immediate area, the battle arena, and probably the Academy in general from what I could see.

I could respect the cadets having the sense to flee, but it seemed like the Imperial Knights should have been made of sterner stuff.

On the other hand, since we were getting an up close view of exactly what two of the Imperial Knights were made of, it was probably for the best that the others took off when they did. Given that they were bonded to the same sort of armor and weapon, I had to imagine that if they’d stayed all they would have been able to do was ‘be delicious’ as they fed more magic and gears to the thing in front of us.

With (nearly) everyone else fleeing, I made a desperate bid to reclaim my title as the ‘Single Most Foolish’ person on the field and started walking forward. Was my plan something only I could do? Probably not. Was I sure I could even do it in the first place? Mostly definitely not. Was I going to try anyways and hope for the best because I was sick of dealing with Imperial nonsense? Absolutely.

I took all of five steps forward, mind focused, heart set on my goal, before a hand grabbed my ankle.

“Where are you going?” Idrina did not sound well at all, croaking her words out at barely more than a whisper.

“To fix this,” I said. I didn’t add ‘or die trying’ because I wasn’t going to die. Not to something like this. There were a variety of other horrible fates which might await me, but death was not one of them.

“You can’t,” Idrina said. “It’s unlimited.”

I could see that she wanted to say more, but even those few words had cost her all the strength she had left.

“I know,” I reassured her very-likely unconscious form and resumed my march as the clockwork monster began rapidly reassembling itself from the damage Narla had inflicted.

As the monster regrew itself, it rebuilt the destroyed areas with plates of steel rather than anything like human tissue or muscle. 

Which meant I probably only had one shot at reaching the heart.

And it was not particularly interested in allowing a foreign body to jump inside its heart/

I chuckled as I broke into a run. In trying to kill me, the clockwork monster was behaving at least three times more rationally than the Imperials it was built from. In fact, if it wrecked the Academy, I might be willing to consider it a comrade rather than an adversary.

Except for how it was wailing.

A chorus of voices.

In soul shredding agony.

Whatever was happening to them, no matter who they were, was wrong and needed to stop.

I dodged a pseudopod of spinning gears and gristle, ducked a spray of flaming oil and tumbled over a dozen scything blades which erupted from the monster’s flesh.

All that left was a dive into the monster’s chest (not a phrase I wish to ever need to repeat) and the all too easy act of pouring myself into the copper colored crystal.

Real crystals aren’t known for being terribly porous or absorbent. Real crystals also don’t thrum with life or burn with an inexhaustible well of power. Each of those facts made the transition into whatever the copper colored crystal actually was distinctly unpleasant in their own unique manner.

Just touching the crystal was enough for me to feel it dragging me in. Passing through the solid outer layer though felt like I was being forced through a slowly shattering glass window. The living, beating hearts at the center of the crystal should have been left as dead long ago and it was from them that the horrible stench arose – life where life shouldn’t be, decay turned on decay. 

The power though was what almost dissolved me. It wasn’t my kind of power or even vaguely similar. If anything, the magic I felt crashing around me was antithetical to everything I was and there was just no end to it.

None of that was a surprise though.

In pouring myself into the crystal, I’d crossed a boundary between dimensions.

Those weren’t supposed to be stable enough to stay in any one place for long. Reaving Storms blew across the land, rather than sitting as unmoving portals to realms that could melt the world’s reality down, precisely because they were immeasurable and unpredictable things.

Or at least they were supposed to be. Within the confines of the crystal, someone had figured out how to change that though.

Instead of flying free (or closing up like they were supposed to), Inside the crystal the rift to another world writhed and burned and fought against a series of restraints that I could see but not even begin to understand..

What I could see though was that it wasn’t the rift which drove the unnatural magic from the realm beyond into my world. On its own the rift would have leaked magic, but it was so small that wouldn’t have been enough to save it from closing. There was something else that was casting the magic of the clockwork realm into my world, and I could feel that ‘something’s’ awareness take me in and swallow me whole.

“Wait, someone new is here?” the voice which spoke was functionally indistinguishable from a god. It came from everywhere around me and was loud enough to fill an entire universe.

“Yes! And she’s not bound!” It didn’t seem like the universe should be big enough to allow a second voice of that scale to exist, and yet the color of their words was so different from the first voice that it had to be someone else speaking.

“Is that possible?” the first asked.

“Well, she’s a hell of a lot bigger than us, so maybe?” the second said.

Bigger? I’d definitely heard that word but my mind refused to embrace it in any manner at all. To be fair though, in addition to the very concept of anything being bigger than the bodiless voices, there was a lot of other distractions I was struggling to deal with.

I thought there’d been more than enough gears jutting out of the clockwork monster, and I’d been correct. No monster, or anything else, needed as many gears as the monster had been riddled with. Given the universe that it was linked too though, I was at a loss to understand why it hadn’t been spewing forth even more.

Everywhere around me, machine components seethed. There were pistons and escaping gasses which drove the turning of gears, hammers and belts, and blades and spikes of all sizes and shapes, with everything appearing in every material imaginable and all of it stretching not just out to the horizon but endlessly off into space, beyond even the farthest stars

What should have been pure, predetermined perfection though was nothing but a cacophony of destruction and chaos. Gears failed to turn against one another and were twisted and shattered, only to form back into near shapes which, as often as not, still couldn’t fit their assigned place and were broken anew.

“I don’t think she can see us,” the first voice said.

“Maybe she’s newly dead?” the second said. “That would explain why she’s so huge.”

“I don’t think that can be it,” the first said. “We saw those two new ghosts get sucked into the maw a minute ago. They weren’t anywhere near as big as she is.”

“True,” the second said. “So the question is how do we get her attention?”

I looked around, trying to figure out what sort of colossuses the two voice might be, but only the endless turning and breaking vista of gears was visible.

I tried to move away from the right to get a better view and I shattered.

Which was bad.

Not painful.

Painful would have been reasonable. Instead what I felt was entirely unreasonable. 

I hadn’t tried to move. I’d tried to turn. But I wasn’t right. I didn’t fit. So I had to break. Then I could be put back together. Put back right. Not like I was. Like it had been decided I should be.

A lot more gears broke as that thought tried to imprint itself into my mind.

“Uh, what is she doing?” the first voice asked, fear creeping higher over each word.

“She’s, uh, she’s…I don’t know,” the second voice said. “It doesn’t look real though, or…”

“Or it’s a different real,” the first voice said.

I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about but it wasn’t a big leap to guess that it had something to do with how I was shifting through the machinery that was trying to bury me and tearing every bit of it that I could get my hands on to pieces.

What? I didn’t like that dimension. I still don’t.

“She’s a…she’s a caster? Here? As a ghost?” the second voice said.

“I don’t think so,” the first voice said.

“She’s not a caster? Then how is she doing all that!” the second voice asked.

“No. I don’t think she’s a ghost,” the first voice said.

“Not a ghost, not going to be one either, not here, not today,” I said, growling the words out as I shifted through forms that were still capable of speech.

“YOU’RE ALIVE!?” the second voice was loud enough that it shook me into goo. That sounds worse than it was since I was in the process of shifting wildly to escape the grinding gears, but it was still more than a little disconcerting.

“Quieter, please?” I asked, pulling myself together and squirting through a rapidly closing gap in the gears.

“Seven Stars! She can hear us!” the second voice said.

“You are louder than a tornado,” I said. “How could I not?”

“We’re what? No, wait, that doesn’t matter. Can you free us?” the first voice asked.

“It’s why I’m here,” I said. “But I have no idea where you are. You sound like you are literally everywhere.”

“We’re trapped in two jewels in the central mechanism,” the second voice said.

“One of these bits of machinery is central to the others?” I asked. It made sense that one would be but I was staring at billions or maybe trillions of different pieces of machinery which were all in motion and all becoming more hostile to me by the second.

“Yeah, can’t you see it?” the first voice asked. “It’s the big glowing one in the center.”

I wanted to ask ‘the center of what’, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to answer, and I knew why.

We weren’t seeing the realm through the same eyes.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Seventeen months, six days, four hours, and thirty six minutes,” the second one said, confirming what I suspected.

No one has that accurate a sense of how long they’ve been trapped somewhere. Not unless the realm they’re a part of is axiomatically one of precision and defined values.

“Can you keep talking,” I said. “I’m going to do something to help find you but I need to hear your voices to make sure I don’t get lost in the process.”

“Uh, what should we talk about?” the first one asked.

“Tell me about yourselves. Who are you? How did you get here?” I was legitimately curious to hear the answers to those questions, but far more importantly I needed an anchor for what I was going to do or I was likely to run face first into one of those ‘not dead but wish I was’ fates.

“My name’s Hanalee,” the second voice said. “And I died about four years ago in a Reaving Storm.”

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 54

“I once believed that if I was simply clever enough life would never be able to surprise me. 

‘If only I’d thought of that, I should have been the master of my destiny still’ was the refrain each time I found myself on the losing end of fate’s fortune. 

Conversely, and more embarrassing in hindsight, was the sheer smugness of having foreseen a distasteful eventuality and rectified the problem only succumb to the hubris of  ‘look, I am indeed first among the wise and intelligent, see my good fortune and bow to my brilliance, surely you lesser peons could enjoy the fruits of my glorious intellect as well if you merely chose to be something more than ignorant, thoughtless beasts!’

It is to my greatest good I suppose that life deigned to whisper the most fundamental of truths in my ears at a moment when they happened to be open and listening for such wisdom; we are all fools, every last one of us and we can no more grasp hold of all the futures which lie before us than we can capture the storm clouds which must blow across our heavens. 

Rejoice therefore, I say, and take great comfort in the fact that the seas of your life may always crash on unexpected shores full of mysteries you will be blessedly unprepared for.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, very drunk, on the 200th anniversary of the Great Calamity.

It was the smell that hit me first. There had been a seal on the helmet which had been keeping what was inside the armor separate from the outside world. Probably a spell of some kind to protect the wearer from gaseous or liquid attacks. Surprisingly even with the holes in the armor and the absence of an entire limb, the spell had held together. It was good work, and I wasn’t just focusing on that because I absolutely did not want to process the stench the erupted from the armor when I tore the helmet free.

Casden processed it though. Right into a disturbingly large puddle of whatever it was he’d had for lunch. Jalaren either had a sterner stomach or less of a sense of smell from being old, and merely turned a greenish hue as he backed away. Idrina, on the other hand, had a spear in her hand the instant the helmet came lose.

And I couldn’t blame her.

In addition to the stench of otherworldly decay, there was the far more worrisome view of what had happened to the former Imperial Knight on full display.

Where a human head should have been there was a mass of tissue, torn and distorted facial features, and gears. So many gears.

Most of the gears were still, jammed up against each other in an ill fitting, haphazard arrangement where their position served no purpose beside the destruction of what had once been a functional human face and brain.

The crowd of cadets were close enough to see how wrong Reldin’s corpse looked but only those of us inside the arena could see that some few of the gears were still turning and that Reldin’s eyes were neither closed nor sightless.

“It’s still alive!” Casden said, throwing his gauntlets to the ground. “It’s still alive!”

He threw his helmet away next and was working on one of the straps on his breastplate when a low moaning started to build from the center of Reldin’s corpse.

“That’s not a living thing,” I said. I had no idea how people couldn’t tell that. Humans needed to breath. It was not breathing. Humans had blood pumping under their skin. All the blood in Reldin’s corpse was gone (I shoved that little observation aside to freak out about later). Most importantly though, and despite all evidence to the contrary, people actually need their brains in a functional state and the thing before us had ground all its grey matter into lube for the gears which had erupted throughout it.



I was wrong.

It wasn’t for the gears which had erupted throughout it. It was for the gears which were continuing to erupt.

“We need to…” I’d wanted to say ‘get back’, but I’d been hopeless optimistic on how quickly the thing in Reldin’s former body was metastasizing.

Idrina didn’t punch me in the solar plexus. It felt like that, but her response to whatever the hell was happening with Reldin wasn’t random violence against me (or Jalaren) but rather to grab us both and dash us out of the arena in a golden blur.

On the plus side, that probably saved both our lives. The only negative was that even with my reinforced frame, it still kinda hurt.

Looking at Casden though, I had to admit that it probably hurt a lot less than what happened to him.

With a shiver, the previously immobile armor Reldin was encased in twitched left, then right, and then collapsed to ground. As it fell, a geyser of badly interconnected gears soaked in blood, oil and viscera spewed forth from the armor’s neck hole and rained down over the area I’d been standing in just a moment earlier. 

Despite being generally in favor of Reldin’s horrible demise, I couldn’t say that what we witnessed filled me with warm happy thoughts. He’d deserved to meet a horrible fate but not this horrible.

The same was probably true of Casden, and if I’d been on the ball I probably should have jumped in and saved him too, but, unfortunately, I just didn’t like him and I wasn’t quite clever enough to work out what was obviously going to happen next.

So, in a sense what happened was my fault, though I’m pretty sure in terms of responsibility I was somewhere around twelfth or thirteenth in the list, with Casden himself somewhere in the top three or so.

He’d managed to get the first strap on his breastplate undone just in time to look up and see the seething mass of whatever unholy, and now screaming, abomination of biotech Reldin had become lurch forward and swarm over him. 

I couldn’t smell the moment that Casden died, mostly because there was too much blood on the scene already and his wasn’t particularly distinct. That he died wasn’t terribly hard to miss though. When the gear monster tears through your armor and grinds you up into itself, it’s a fair guess that most people will not be surviving the experience.

Apart from the tragic, tragic loss of life of someone who I wasn’t going to miss from the world at all, Casden’s death was bad in a manner which actually was relevant to me. 

As the gear monster devoured him, Casden’s only partially removed armor initiated whatever magical protocol Reldin’s had and so we got to watch the same transformation take place, though this time without a helmet obscuring all of the unpleasant details.

The other Imperial Knights and the instructors were, justifiably, stunned by what they were witnessing. 

So they stood there. 


To be fair, I didn’t have any great ideas on what to do either, but the other cadets were able to appraise the situation and together formulate the proper tactical response.

They ran away screaming.

Okay, it wasn’t the height of bravery, but this had definitely not been covered in our non-existent coursework and it was most definitely not our problem to deal with.

“We have to stop that thing,” Idrina said, conjuring another spear to her hands.

I closed my eyes and groaned.

I did not have to help her.

It was objectively the stupidest possible thing I could do to help her.

The right answer was to grab her (and maybe Jalaren) and carry them to safety the same as she’d done for me.

Then we would be even and we could go our own separate ways, no debts between us, no need to acknowledge each other or this debacle at all.

“Got any ideas on how?” I asked. Because I am the biggest idiot in creation.

“There are two people trapped in there,” Yarrin said, forcing me to correct myself.

I was not, it seemed, the biggest idiot in creation.

That honor went to one of my housemates.

Or maybe they all held the trophy together.

“Why aren’t you running?” I shouldn’t have screamed that. It wasn’t fair to them, and, more importantly, it got the gear monster’s attention.

“Uh, why would we let you have all the fun?” Narla asked.

I wanted to respond to that. I really did. My mouth moved up and down and everything.

“It’s not going to stop growing,” Mellina said. “We stop it here, with you, or we lose the city.”

After everything I’d been through, losing the city didn’t seem entirely objectionable to me, but I had to admit that going home to Grammy with a dead city as the legacy of my time in the Academy probably wouldn’t be the easiest of things.

Also I was like thirteenth in line for fault that this was happening so there was some responsibility to clean up the mess I supposed.

“What do you mean there are two people trapped in there?” Idrina asked. “Are Reldin and Casden still alive?”

I couldn’t see how that would be possible, but it made sense that it had jumped out to her as the worse case scenario.

“Definitely not,” Yarrin said. “Their spirits got pulled out the moment they died. There’s other people in there. We have to free them.”

“Again, how?” I asked.

The gear monster, or monster I guess, didn’t seem keen on the answer to that question getting out, or at least that’s what I guessed from how they started blobbing towards us.

“We’ll hold them back,” Ilyan said. “You figure it out. Ready sis?”

Idrina didn’t even bother to nod – the twins knew each other too well to need even that.

Watching them fight together was something akin to a religious experience for me. I’d put a lot of effort into studying human movement and the grace and coordination they showed was nothing short of angelic. 

Ilyan wasn’t as fast or as strong as his sister. I could see that he hadn’t trained half as hard as she had. Fighting together with her though, he was so much better than when he’d been fighting alone that it was liking watching a new person move. From strike to block to dodge, trading places and reinforcing each other’s unguarded flanks there was a fluidity to their movements that shot an unexpected pang of homesickness through me. 

Idrina was tired though. She’d been through a hell of a fight and was still shaking off the effect of the silver fire. Her superhuman poise and prowess couldn’t last, so as much as I wanted to just sit back and watch the beautiful artistry on display I knew we had to help them in the next thirty seconds or so if we wanted to have any hope of walking away from the fight as anything other than monster food.

“There are two central mechanisms,” Yarrin said. “Or there were. They’re joining into one now. Those have two souls bound to them.”

“Where are they and can we break them?” I asked.

“They’re…No, I wanted to say they’re center mass, but they’re not. They’re on the other side of a dimensional boundary. This thing’s…it’s like a living Reaving Storm!”

“Uh, maybe we should run then,” Narla said.

“Is anything crossing the boundary?” I asked, hating my brain for the plan it was developing.

“Yeah. It’s sending the blood and bits of the two Knights over to the other side and returning some kind of oil, I think?” Yarrin said.

Idrina and Ilyan choose that moment to not dodge when they should have.

Or maybe they were blocking a strike at us?


Didn’t want to think about that.

The important thing was that they were both down.

“Mellina can you…” I didn’t have to finish asking before she cloaked us. “Thanks.”

“It can still sense us,” Yarrin said as the gear monster turned to stare directly at us.

“Oh can it?” Mellina said, an unexpectedly wicked delight filling her voice.

“I can break the mechanism,” I said, regretting every word as I spoke them. “I just need to not get torn to bits getting to the thing.”

“Allow me,” Mellina said and the shadows she’d raised around us gathered and began to pour into the gear monster. 

From how she was giggling, I wasn’t entirely sure Mellina was doing okay, but that was yet another worry I didn’t have time for.

The gear monster seemed to be in a similar boat of not being able to focus on Mellina, or the rest of us too, fortunately. The shadows which poured into it left it rigid and shaking. Like it was gripped in the worst nightmare ever.

“That’s my cue then,” Narla said and stepped forward to punch a hole straight through the gear monster’s center mass.

As Yarrin had said, there was no mechanism there, only a network of sturdy cable-veins carrying stuff I wasn’t going to think about into a diamond shaped copper colored crystal.

A copper colored crystal that was shrieking in agony.

Yeah, I couldn’t walk away from this one.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 53

“The wonderful thing about rules is that they are meant to be broken. Not directly of course, blindly stumbling through things does little more than invite others to wrap you up in the rules and hang you from them. 

Understanding what the rules say, and more importantly what they don’t say though? Those can be sharper tools than any enchanted sword.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame teaching his first and only Imperial Kinder Class.

Reldin came away from the silver flames with a roar of metal tearing through metal. He swung his blade at the spot where Idrina had been standing so quickly that I only saw the end of his moment when the blade was buried in the ground.

Happily, it was not buried in Idrina. Reldin had struck quickly, but not quickly enough. With her golden spear Idrina had turned the blow aside by a few inches and sidestepped the rest.

From the ripping metal sounds when Reldin moved, my instincts told me that she needed to run, or at least make distance between them. Whatever magic was working on Reldin had to be costly. Forcing him to close a gap every time he tried to attack would show what kind of stamina he had and how long you’d have to hold out before he exhausted the power that was keeping him functional.

That was not what Idrina did.

Reldin started to advanced, apparently thinking like I had that he would need to chase his quarry down.

Idrina stepped in close to him though stabbing him through both arms and legs simultaneously as she kicked him in the center of the chest.

Reldin spasmed at the wounds and flew back into the flames.

This time Idrina didn’t let up. Reldin’s armor began to glow red hot from the flames but his movements didn’t slow at all.

Idrina’s attacks washed over him like a thunderstorm, steel crashing on steel as her spear shattered into metal dust and his armor was crumpled and torn by her unending assault.

He tried to gain distance from her, but where he was burning in the silver fire, Idrina was surrounded by a thin golden glow and advanced at a slow but inescapable pace thanks to the fact that the spears she summoned seemed to be however long was required, changing shape on the fly as Reldin backed further away.

With no other choice, Reldin threw himself into the path of a half dozen spears in order to escape from the silver flames.

His move spared him from his back armor melting off entirely, but two of the spear stabbed through the armor on his right arm, two others through the armor on his left leg, one through his left arm, and one through his abdomen.

That should have been the end of the fight. The limb wounds had to have shattered the bones. I could see where they went in and Reldin wasn’t shape shifting so he hadn’t moved his bones somewhere else (not that shapeshifters could normally do that). 

But he kept moving!

I almost jumped into the arena then. It’s one thing to cheat at a game, but Reldin was breaking basic rules of anatomy and that was just intolerable.

Sure he was probably patching up the injuries with magic, maybe regrowing the bones instantly or attaching his muscles to the armor directly so it could serve as an exo-skeleton, but it was the principal of the thing. Idrina had hit him with at least twenty hits which should have ended the fight. The contest should have been over already.

Reldin disagreed though. He took three more spear thrusts through the torso in order to surge forward and grab Idrina by the throat.

Metal screamed against metal as he closed his hand to tear her head off but she didn’t flinch. With a sweep of a blinding spear Idrina freed herself and took Reldin’s arm off jet below the elbow.

And then she buried the spear through his throat and pinned him to the ground with it.

That was the end of the fight.

No matter how he’d magicked things up, Reldin was still human at his core and humans do not survive beheadings. 

Idrina inhaled and then hurled six more spear into Reldin’s chest piercing, unless I was mistaken, his heart, liver, both lungs, and his spine in two places.

It was unnecessarily brutal and I could not have been happier that she’d made sure he wouldn’t be getting back up, ever. The smell of heart’s blood wafted through the air like a balm to my nerves, confirming that my faith hadn’t been misplaced and the danger was passed.

And then he got back up.

With a horrible grinding of gears and the squelch of what could only be formerly vital organs, he got back up.

He wasn’t slow either.

Idrina turned, a golden spear forming in her hand the moment she heard the first gear turn. The barrage of attacks she’d unleashed had cost her though and Reldin caught her with a straight punch that knocked her across the arena and into the silver flames on the far side.

Idrina bounced off the invisible barrier the flames created but not before her back was scorched by the flames and her body rendered as limp as her right arm had been.

Reldin’s movements came with the sound of breaking gears and tearing flesh. The fantastic burst of speed had been a one time thing it seemed as he dragged himself slowly over to Idrina’s prone form.

She wasn’t unconscious, just paralyzed and as it turned out her looks could kill. Shadow spears erupted from the ground and descended from the heavens like the wrath of a god. Bits of Reldin’s armor evaporated but he dodged worst of the hits.

It wasn’t until he stretched his arm out and called his sword back to his hand that I finally recognized the magic he was using.

The moment he was reunited with his sword, it began to change, transforming in exactly the same manner as the Imperial Cadet’s had.

I watched him raise it over his head.

Exactly as the Imperial Cadet had when he fought Kelthas.

I watched the sword fall.

Exactly as it had when the Cadet had killed Kelthas.

I hadn’t been fast enough then.

This time I was.

I didn’t growl.

Growls are a warning.

You don’t give warnings for murder.

I didn’t think about transforming.

Thoughts are for when you need to plan.

Before the sword could fall, I was there, and I was not a human girl anymore.

With teeth the size of short swords, I bit through my enemy’s arm.

With jaw muscles strong enough to run rend enchanted steel, I tore through platemail and removed the hateful sword by virtue of tearing his arm off completely.

Next was his head and then I was going to scattered all of the rest of him across the entire arena.

Except for the part where I was frozen in place.

By a spell.

I followed the magic back to the Imperial Knight Casden Lightstone, Reldin’s second-in-command. My eyes blazed with the a hellish red light that made it clear he was not going to survive this offense anymore than Reldin was.

His magic held me fast, bound me from doing any further damage to my prey, but it couldn’t hold me forever. In fact it couldn’t hold me for very long. He hadn’t suppressed my magics, only locked my form in place.

I’d felt the effect before.

Long ago.

That memory was not one he wanted to have triggered.

That memory was not one I was capable of being forgiving about.

Rage and anger and sorrow and long buried loss swirled up and took my vision away as I descended deeper into my magics once more, not caring what the cost was if only I could finish destroying the ones who were…

I felt a hand on my side and from an impossible distance heard a familiar voice speaking.

“Don’t hurt her,” Idrina said. “She hasn’t done anything wrong.”

I blinked. She was okay? 

And Reldin wasn’t attacking anymore?

With ragged breathing, I swam up towards the light that was still burning within me. I hadn’t exhausted myself this time, so I still had the strength to claw myself back to myself.

In doing so I let the Dire Wolf shrink away until I was back to being the girl I’d been a few moments earlier. It was hard to catch my breath, and I definitely didn’t feel all too great but I was stable and my magics were mine again, not the other way round.

“She has done quite a number of things wrong,” Knight Casden said. “Not the least of which was to interrupt a Imperial Trial by Combat.”

I shook my head and coughed out a short laugh.

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“Child, all here will bear witness to the fact and I dare say even your vaunted patron will not being able to protect you from the ramifications of interfering with an official trial.”

“I didn’t interrupt it,” I said. “It was already over.”

“She’s right,” Idrina said.

“Knight Reldin did not yield, and as we see his magics were more the sufficient to withstand the accused attacks,” Casden said.

“No they weren’t,” I said.

“He was still moving up until you entered the ring,” Casden said. “And, by the way, how did you do that?”

I threw a glance behind me towards where I’d been standing. The crowd was looking at me with what I assumed to be abject terror, though that would have suggested they should be running about now too. So not terror? Well, it was something unsettling.

Also, and this took an extra moment or two to register, the silver flames had gone out.


There was a bit of evidence that they’d once been in place from the charred ring that was left on the ground. The charred ring which was significantly thicker than the wall of flames had been. The charred ring with the rather large, some might call it Dire Wolf sized, blast mark in one side.

I glanced around at the ring again and tried to think what I’d done to get through the otherwise solid barrier it created. I couldn’t really think of anything except that I been unwilling to tolerate anything stopping me from tearing Reldin’s arm off.

Had I just smashed through it by sheer brute force? I didn’t think I was that strong, but I honestly couldn’t say I’d ever tested myself like that before.

Also I’d turned into a really big Dire Wolf.

Reldin had come up to the first joini on my leg if my memories weren’t terribly scrambled.

That was a lot bigger than I usually chose to be, and I’d been moving a lot faster too.

“It was inconvenient,” I said, opting for as basic a version of the truth as I could manage. “As for him,” I gestured to Reldin (either Casden had dropped his restraint spell or shifting back into human form had thrown it off), “he died well before I jumped into the arena. The trial was over. Idrina won.”

“She’s right. It’s why I turned my back on my foe,” Idrina said. “I know he was dead then.”

“He is wearing armor with capabilities you are unaware of,” Casden said. “It allows the Imperial Knights to survive many injuries which would destroy a lesser fighter.”

“He didn’t survive them,” I said. “In fact he was dead before Idrina even put a spear through his throat. I think the first time she knocked him into the flames, he perished.”

“That’s not possible. He continued fighting well after that. He was alive then and he was alive when you attacked him,” Casden said.

“And is he alive now?” I asked.

“He…?” Casden started to say and trailed off, unsure as Reldin, or rather Reldin’s corpse, continued to stand there, unmoving and unspeaking in what remained of his armor.

“Unless Knight Reldin can testify that his wounds were not as severe as they appeared, we must conclude that the accused has proven her innocence,” Jalaren said, speaking up in his role as the one rational voice in the entire Academy.

“He is enspelled by this abomination,” Casden said, whirling to point an accusing finger at me.

It wasn’t all that bright of a move given that I had just ripped someone’s arm off, but I was pretty sure I knew how to prove my point.

“I haven’t cast any spells on him. That’s all his armor’s doing. So let’s see what happens when we take that off and get a good look at the man inside.”

Full of clever self assurance, I reached over and tore Reldin’s helmet off of his head.

No one, as it turned out, was ready for what lay underneath it.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 52

“The promises we make are such curious things. Even when we do not keep them, they can reveal so much of who we are and what we truly value.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame as the first lines of his third wedding vows.

Jalaren, it turned out, was a bit of a showman. I’m guessing it was how he kept himself amused with his job enough that he didn’t start each day by magically shot putting a half dozen or so students over the Academy’s wall on general principal.

“Sir Reldin, do you make any demands or offer any concessions to the Accused?” he asked.

“Yes. I offer her the chance to change her plea. Should she admit to her guilt here and now, the Empress will be content with her expulsion from this Academy and final sentencing by the High Council,” Reldin said.

There was an odd reverberation in his voice. It was subtle, and I couldn’t place what was responsible but it seemed a safe bet that it was related to the suit of full plate armor he was wearing.

Grammy had always laughed at ‘Knights’ and their obsession with encasing themselves in giant cans of metal. On horseback, the armor wasn’t as much of an issue, but for foot fighting like this, she’d always insisted it was more of a hindrance than a help. I’d asked her why they didn’t use magic to make it light and fast and strong enough to provide protection against fireballs and things like that. Her answer had been that they did, but that it was still more of an affectation than a worthwhile tool. According to her, there were magics which could render a duelist’s skin stronger than the strongest steel and even the best armor always had weaknesses that an experienced duelist could exploit.

I’d believed her when she’d said that and imagined myself nimbly fighting a garrison of clumsy Knights who would be trapped waddling around in their steel suits while I danced from one to other laying them low with perfect disabling shots. 

Watching a real Knight prepare for battle though showed me how wrong I’d been and left me questioning Grammy’s wisdom in general.

Reldin wasn’t slow or clumsy in his movements. He was a wall of steel and blades ready to spring the moment Jalaren released them. I looked for the weaknesses and clever openings Grammy had insisted would be there and I saw several. The slit in his visor, a reverse thrust along his arm into his gauntlet, the hinge at his knee. Each one a potential liability and each one he was certainly aware of and definitely capable of defending.

“Idrina Ironbriar, how do you answer this offer?” Jalaren asked.

“The terms are an insult and I rejected them as such,” Idrina said. “I will extend an offer to the Accuser though, admit that the charges presented are lies and slander, swear yourself to my service for a year and a day and the Gold Phalanx may have you back when I am done with you. Otherwise only the crows and the worms will have any use for you.”

“The Accused cannot make offers to the Prosecution,” Jalaren said.

“The enemies of the Empire shall ever fall,” Reldin said, unsheathing his sword in what looked like more than a little irritation.

“Indeed they shall,” Indrina said, conjuring a single spear to her hands with a note of grim delight in her voice.

For as eager as the two of them were to start killing one another though, Jalaren wasn’t quite ready to let proceedings begin.

“As the Empress watches over us all, we take this moment to entreat that her favor be granted to the one who champions the righteous decision in the matter to be put to the blade,” he said. “It is in her name that justice shall be done and for her glory that virtue shall be redeemed. Let no one doubt that it is her divine hand which binds the fate of these two and her unquestionable holy wisdom which delivers the victor into the grace of her realm, with no taint or feud arising from their actions herein.”

As prayers went it felt a bit wobbly to me. If the Empress could see all and decide how the fight was going to turn out why would anyone need to entreat her favor? For that matter if the Empress had any power at all why would this trial ever have been necessary? Saying that ‘the result is the Empresses’ fault’ implies that the crime was the Empresses fault too.

Or at least it did to me. I suspected if I tried to advance that particular line of reasoning in the wrong places I’d probably get myself burned at the stake.

“Knight Reldin, do you stand ready, sworn in body, mind, and soul to uphold the honor the Empress Eternal and the Empire she preserves for us?” Jalaren asked.

“I do,” Reldin said, but his whole attention was on Idrina.

Idrina who was wearing no armor.

Idrina who was half a foot shorter than him.

Idrina who was only armed with a normal spear where he was carrying…my eyes finally locked onto the blade Reldin was carrying. 

It wasn’t a normal sword.

I couldn’t tell how I knew that, not at first, but even just seeing his blade made my skin itch.

“Irdina Ironbriar, do you stand ready, your fate bound to your sworn word to redeem your honor in the eyes of the Empress Eternal and the Empire she preserves for us?” Jalaran asked.

“I am ready to defend my honor with my life, but it needs no redemption as the lies before me tarnish it not and never shall,” she said.

“I declare that you are both joined in holy purpose and on my mark, shall the Empress’s will be done. Lay on!”

The two of them needed no further encouragement.

There was a burst of golden light from Idrina’s feet and the bang of an explosion from within Reldin’s armor, both of which propelled the combatants to the center of the ring where they met with enough force to blow the front row of spectators three feet back.

Well, most of the spectators. Narla didn’t move because she was Narla and Ilyan didn’t move because he was used to Idrina’s fighting style.

The two fighters spent a moment in the center of the arena, sword blade locked against spear haft. Reldin had the advantage in height and strength in that contest but I watched him surge forward, trying to drive Idrina back (presumably into the scorching silver flames) only to fail to move her more an inch.

At first that didn’t make sense. Had Idrina been hiding strength related magic from me in our fights? Then I noticed the gold light beneath her feet hadn’t vanished like it normally did. In fact a circuit of it went up her pant legs and emerged from her sleeves to reinforce her grip on the spear.

Reldin grunted and pushed harder, clearly seeking to shatter not only her body but also her magic in one go. That didn’t seem practical until I noticed that small runes on his armor which flared to life as he brought his might to bear on Idrina.

The sound of her spear cracking had the volume and tenor of a great oak being split in two. Before it split fully in half though, Reldin was leaping backwards.

Where he’d been standing four new spears appeared, blasting into the earth and throwing up a cloud of dust which instantly covered the arena and was only held back by the barrier of the silver flames.

As fast as the dust arose though, it plummeted to the ground, revealing Reldin with an outstretched fist as he cleared the arena to find his foe.

His foe who was unexpectedly absent from view.

To his credit, Reldin wasn’t taken as unaware by Idrina’s maneuver as everyone else in the arena was. A moment before her attacks hit him, he glanced up to find her descending towards him following a hail of black and shadowy spears.

I expected him to conjure a shield, or simply parry the ones which were aimed directly at him. Instead he moved. Fast.

In hindsight it was a good choice.

Where the shadowy spears landed, the ground dissolved into smoke. It didn’t burn, I would have smelled that, and it didn’t explode into dust like with the earlier attack. It disintegrated.

Idrina landed and called a spinning circle of spears up to guard her flank just in time to ward off something like two dozen blows which Reldin landed in the blink of an eye. 

Ilyan had been right. Reldin was able to deal with Idrina’s speed.

I’d been right too though.

Raising her hands, Idrina called a hundred spears up to rise in a circle, filling the arena.

There was no where Reldin could run to avoid them all.

And none of them were her actual attack.

With a wave of his hand, he shattered every spear between himself and Idrina, reducing them to harmless metal dust and wood splinters.

What he missed was the one she conjured from the ground directly below his right foot.

I don’t think it should have been possible for her to punch through the armor of his boot. The metal on Reldin’s foot was thick and all sorts of protective glyphs were glowing on it. If there was anywhere he was well protected, the bottom on his foot should have been near the top of the list.

The shadowy spear didn’t seem to care about any of that though.

Nor did Reldin’s foot fare any better than the ground had. 

One moment he was pinned in place and screaming in pain, the next everything below his knee simply puffed away into smoke.

With his one good leg, he leapt at her, slashing through a barrage of spears before slamming into a golden one Idrina summoned into her hands.

The force of his blow was unreal for someone who had no more leverage than a single legged jump could provide and Idrina wasn’t well braced for it. She managed to block the blade from sheering her in half but the impact spun her around and into the silver flames.

She rolled away instantly, dousing the flames which had sprung up around her right arm but as she rose I could see she hadn’t extinguished them before they did some serious damage.

Magical damage I guessed? She hadn’t burned long enough and her arm was too intact for there to be purely heat related trauma involved, especially since her right arm was hanging all but lifeless at her side. 

With her left hand, she conjured another barrage of spears. That would have been enough to finish Reldin off if he hadn’t risen to stand on both of his perfectly intact feet and sweep them aside from a wave of his hands. 

I shook my head and blinked.

Something smelled wrong.

Very wrong.

There was a buzzing in the air and the scent of a familiar and entirely unwelcome magic.

Idrina called another golden spear to her hands and met Reldin’s blade in hand-to-hand again.

He was ready for her speed.

And she was ready for his might.

Her first blow didn’t try to slip past his defenses, or come at his from a tricky angle.

She simply hit him so fast and hard that even catching her blow on his sword didn’t dissipate the force.

Reldin was knocked back into the same patch of silver flames that Idrina had been, and like her, where the flames touched him, his body went limp.

Except the magic came again.

The magic and a scream.

Utter anguish.

I felt my skin tingling and my nerves all light up.

I had to do something.

Something was horrible wrong.

I just had no idea what.

Then Reldin started moving again.

Without any weakness.

Without any hesitation.

And without any humanity.

I watched his next seven moves.

They were quick, but that was a given. They were powerful, but all of his movements had been. They were not human though ad that was new.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying how humans move. It was a rather important trick to work out so that people didn’t instinctively figure out I wasn’t one of them. 

Like I was instinctively figuring out that Reldin wasn’t human anymore.

I wanted to scream that they had to stop the fight. That it wasn’t fair anymore.

Except it had never been fair.

And no one would stop the fight.

Well, no one except Idrina.

It didn’t matter that her opponent was fast, or strong, or even inhuman, because I’d been right about something else – she had been holding back.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 51

“Life, occasionally, presents us with impossible situations. Challenges which have no good answer, problems we cannot fix or even ameliorate. When there are no good paths open to us though, it’s is still essential that we carry on. Are all of your options terrible? Will every road lead to heartache and sorrow? So be it. 

Sometimes there is no dodging the blows fate sends at us. Sometimes we must simply take them and know that whatever may come, there will be something beyond the pain which will be worth our enduring it.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame at the first memorial service for the Great Calamity.

Idrina didn’t struggle at all. When one of the instructors explained the charges against her and the options which were on offer, she quietly nodded before accepting the Trial by Combat. 

I don’t know if the instructors had been expecting that. Terrified pleading or outright offers of bribery were the responses almost any other cadet would have given. Idrina though seemed perfectly calm. Cadets who planned to simply sacrifice themselves might have been as still but anyone who was paying even the slightest attention to the energy which was coiled up deep within Idrina would not have made the mistake of thinking she had any thoughts of losing the battle before her.

The instructors didn’t care about any of that though and wasted no time from there, detaching Idrina’s restraints from the attachment points on the wall and marching her out towards the tourney field. Right before they left, she turned her head to glance at the stray patch of air where Mellina and I were standing cloaked in shadows and offered the ghost of a smile to us.

“We need to get back,” I said. “Holman’s going to lose his mind when he sees her in chains.”

“Let’s follow them,” Mellina said. “It’ll be quicker and they won’t be looking for us there.”

I wasn’t sure of that but she was the expert on sneaking places invisibly, so I would have been an idiot not to follow her lead.

As it turned out, both of us were right.

Mellina got us back to the others safe and sound, and when we got there Holman was indeed losing his mind.

“House Ironbriar objects to this on the strongest possible grounds!” He was yelling loud enough that even though Jalaren had dragged him off to the side of the tourney field and behind one of the partitions everything he said was clearly audible.

“She has agreed to the Trial,” Jalaren said. “Even if there was a better option, it’s too late to look for it.”

As arguments went, that was one of the least sensible ones possible. The fight hadn’t begun yet. There was clearly still plenty of time for a more reasonable course of action to be taken. The problem was the only one who wanted to be reasonable about this was Holman.

Well, I did too, but as was readily apparent, what a Cadet from a minor house wanted was utterly irrelevant as far as the Academy was concerned.

“It sounds like things didn’t go well?” Yarrin asked once Mellina dropped the shadows which were cloaking us.

“Better than I expected,” I said.

“So she’s not going to fight?” Ilyan asked.He sounded surprised but I think most of that came from the growing concern for his sister’s safety that I could see blooming in his whole body’s expression.

“She’s going to win,” I said. “She told us so.”

He stared at me. Then blinked. Then stared some more.

“And you believed her?” he asked, confusion tightening every muscle in his face as he tried to figure out if I’d lost all of my senses or just most of them.

“I do,” I said. “She’s been holding back. A lot with me and at least a little in her Trial.”

“That’s not true,” Ilyan said. “She always fights flat out. It’s why I can never beat her.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid to break it to you, but you can’t beat her because she’s not willing to lose to you, and she’s good enough that she doesn’t have to. You’re her brother though, you can’t tell me that you don’t know she loves you? No matter how hard you fight, I’m betting she’s never wanted to really hurt you.”

“What are you talking about? How could you…what makes you think any of that is true?”

“She didn’t mean to kill me,” I said. “And even when she did, she was holding back. Her moves are like a surgeons. She’s so fast its hard to see, but she doesn’t throw wild strikes out. She knows what she’s doing at all times. She just makes her decisions so fast that it’s hard not to see it as pure reflexes.”

“That’s not going to help her against an Imperial Knight,” Ilyan said. “They know how to fight fast people, and strong people, and everything else.”

“Do they?” I asked. “How many people like your sister do you think there are? How many of the Knights have fought anyone like her? And how often?” To his credit, Ilyan did seem to be considering that, so I went on. “Whoever they pick, they’re going to walk into that arena with the full confidence that they’ll be fighting a fledgling cadet. A talented one maybe, but how many of them do you think will start off aware of who and what they’re faced with?”

“They fight Reaving Beasts all the time though,” Ilyan said. “All they do is react to things that have unexpected powers and unknown levels of strength. They’re going to figure her out fast enough to make a different, fast enough to survive. If they couldn’t do that they’d never be able to fight the Reaving Beasts.” His view of what Reaving Beasts were and how they fought was shared by almost everybody in the Empire but it wasn’t true. I couldn’t tell him that, and I hoped dearly that the Imperial Knights were as taken in by their propaganda as he was because that would help Idrina immeasurably. 

Ilyan couldn’t see that though. 

“This isn’t going to be good,” he said, his whole body crestfallen.

“Of course not,” I said. “This is a fight to the death for absolutely no good reason. There’s nothing good here at all.”

“I’m going to stop it then,” Ilyan said. “I’ll tell them I did it.”

“Already volunteered to do that,” I said. “She shot me down.”


“Because if you walk up there and confess, all they’re going to do is put the two of you through a Trial,” Narla said. “Kati’s right. There’s no getting your sister out of this.”

“She seemed confident she could deal with it though,” Mellina said.

“Can she? Can you see her future?” Ilyan asked.

“No. Not a definite one,” Mellina said.

“What do you see then?”

Mellina closed her eyes.

“She’s standing over her opponent with one of her spears pining him through the heart to the ground. She is bleeding out after being sliced open from shoulder to hip. The fight is interrupted by the arrival of a Reaving Storm – that’s not a likely future – or the fight ends with her embracing a Reaving Beast who saves her life – also not likely, though I do keep seeing it, which is odd,” Mellina said, opening her eyes when I could tell it would be easy for her to continue.

“So she’ll be okay?” Ilyan asked.

“No, I can’t promise that. What I see isn’t the future, I explained that didn’t I? All I can see are things that might be. It’s like imagining what’s to come but there’s magic wrapped around it that makes it feel so much more real than it is. Believing in future visions though is the worst mistake you can make. They’re not real. Only the future we actually make is.”

“This sucks,” Ilyan said, his gaze cast down to ground, the posture failing to disguise the worry that was growing worse every second.

“I know. It does,” I said. “She asked us to believe in her though, so let’s give that a chance.”

“She is going to be insufferable if this works out for her,” he said, lifting his head and forcing a smile onto his face.

“She’s not already?” I asked which earned me a short laugh from him.

“Come on, they’re done setting up the dueling pit. Let’s give a front row seat,” I said. “We can watch her win better from there. Or break all the rules, jump in, and run away with her.”

“I like that. Keep our options open,” he said.

Getting to the front of the crowds wasn’t that hard. There weren’t that many cadets on the tourney field and the space they’d setup was large enough that there was plenty of room around it to view the battle to come.

I’d expected them to use ropes or have some kind of short walls setup as barriers but instead they’d defined the fighting area with a circle of the same burning silver powder that they’d used to wall Idrina into the prison.

“I wondered what those looked like,” Yarrin said, nodding to the silver circle. “I’ve read about True Silver Barriers before. They block magic and cause pretty horrible burns to anything that crosses them.”

Idrina and one of the Knights were already inside the barrier, which answered the question of how they were going to handle that obvious problem of having them cross it. They’d also taken Idrina’s shackles off, which was good. If they’d expected her to fight with them on, it would have been grounds for justifiable homicide on every authority figure present and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been alone in the slaughterfest.

“Attention Cadets,” Jalaren said, his voice carrying over the chatter of the crowd despite a lack of magical amplification. “In place of the practical evaluations planned for this afternoon, we will instead be holding a Trial. The accusations are gathered into a charge of High Treason Against the Empire from the supporting charges of Destruction of Imperial Vital Property, the Summoning of Forbidden Entities, and Catastrophic Endangerment of the Population of an Imperial City.”

I glanced over at Yarrin.

“Summoning of Forbidden Entities?” I whispered.

“I heard that they’re saying she summoned the Reaving Beasts which were released,” he whispered back.

I shook my head, unable to process that at first.

It was such a blatant lie.

Did people think the Academy didn’t summon people from other worlds? Wasn’t it obvious? They’d done it in plain view during the Trials? 

I had to ask someone about that. Doxle. I needed him to explain what the hell everyone was on about there. Grammy had never mentioned anyone purposefully summoning people from other worlds. From her stories, it was always Reaving Storms which rent the fabric of the world and let in creatures and people from beyond. The Imperial Knights and others were supposed to be the first and best line of defense against the ‘monsters’ which summoned by the storms, and the authority of the Houses rested at least partially on their ability to keep the populace safe from the unpredictable and all too destructive attacks which plagued the Empire in the wake of the Calamity three centuries back.

“The Accused is Cadet Idrina Ironbriar,” Jalaren said. “Her answer to these charges is a declaration of ‘Not Guilty’ and in defense of this answer has chosen Trial by Combat. Standing for the Prosecution will be the Imperial Knight Sir Reldin of Gold Phalanx. Because the charges are gathered together under the central accusation of High Treason, the trial may only end when one of the combatants lies dead or should the Accuser submit and yield the field.”

There was a general murmur of surprise at that. Apparently most of the cadets weren’t aware that the farce playing out before them was quite so serious. From the chatter which sprang up, it sounded like most had thought this was a staged event.

And of course some still did, for what sounded like a variety of reasons.

“Should the Accused be victorious in the trial, all charges against her will be rescinded with no further doubt laid against her and no blemish upon her honor,” Jalaren said as though required to explain an eventuality which would clearly never come to pass. “Should Sir Reldin be victorious then all charges will be confirmed as fact, even should resuscitation of the Accused prove to be viable. I would remind both combatants that several of the overseers are gifted with either healing or transformative magics and that, while this is a duel to the death, it is intended that resuscitation will be attempted at the conclusion in order to apply a more fitting punishment once guilt is determined.”

I groaned at that. He’d started off with at least the pretense that he was taking a neutral view on how the proceedings would play out but, probably like the rest of the instructors and the Imperial Knights, he wasn’t able to conceive of any ending except the obvious one.

I think everyone was probably watching Idrina when Jalaren said that, but I’m not sure if anyone else caught the small and deadly smile that crossed her lips.

She was ready for this.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 50

“You would think with a life as long as mine has been, there would be a fair chance that my great works would all be behind me. Surely the challenges of today must seem so small when weighed against all those which have come before. After so long, isn’t it time to gracefully rest and let the world just carry on?

I must confess there are days when that would be delightful, and days when the night’s before are just a touch too tiring and the world can go and do as it will.

The truth though is that our greatest works always lie before us. Whatever we’ve done has only served to create the world as it is. Our greatest challenge, no matter where or when we stand, is to create the world that will be. Even a small act, one kindness, one connection when placed atop a thousand earlier ones can have the weight to change everything.”

– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame

We arrived at the next evaluation twenty minutes late, and I was so eager to hear how the instructors were going to tear us down. I’d been given free rein by my Advisor to cause havoc, and with the recharge he’d given me, all the misery from freeing the prisons had faded away leaving me with only the cheery warmth of knowing they were safe and sound and that the Academy was going to be frothing and/or terrified by their disappearance.

Laughing in their faces was definitely not going to win me any points.

But I was so very ready to do it anyways.

And then, no one noticed us at all. Because why should I get to have any fun?

Late arrival? Who cares? Not the instructors that was sure.

They were all clustered together arguing with some people I’d never seen before.

People in full Imperial armor.

“They think the Reaving Beasts are still in the Academy,” Yarrin said, since we (and all the rest of the cadets) were all watching the distant discussion intently. “Or some of them do. The Knights are arguing that if one or more escaped into the city there’s going to be hell to pay.”

The Evaluations had been scheduled to take place on one of the Academy’s tourney fields. They weren’t terribly different from the temporary arena where we’d run through the Trials to be admitted, just smaller by about two-thirds, probably because each class of cadets was less than a third the size of the applicant pool. 

The instructors and the Imperial Knights had removed themselves to the far end of the field. Behind them, a set of iron gates stood open leading to a tunnel of darkness which had to adjoin some part of the prison-stables the people I’d freed had been held in.

“I bet that monster went and set them free,” a raging idiot with a death wish said from about ten feet behind me.

I didn’t have to turn around.

Nelphas Lightstone was definitely talking about me.

He didn’t know I’d been the one to release the prisoners.

If he had he wouldn’t be mouthing off like that.

In fact, if he knew how I’d set them free, and had two gray cells to rub together, he’d be running for the Empire’s nearest border before getting on my bad side.

I mean, would Doxle even object to me thrashing the narcissistic jerk to within an inch of his life? I could be nice and leave one of his bones unbroken even. That would show restraint right?

“He’s walking over here,” Mellina said. “Try not to kill him.”

As it turned out though, I wasn’t the one she needed to warn.

“Come on, confession is good for the soul,” Nelphas said. “Which one of you deviants was the one who…” That was as far as he got before his words cut off with a strangled choke.

Since I’d been planning tripping him and then crushing his throat with my boots and had yet to do either of those things I turned to see who’d beaten me to the punch.


She was a lot faster than her size would lead someone to expect. Also a lot less merciful than someone, in this case Nelphas, had counted on.

“Hi there cuz!” she said in a cheery tone.

Nelphas responded with a gurgle and a desperate scramble against the hand Narla had clasped around his throat.

“Do you know my father specifically told me that I should always do whatever you told me to because, and I am quoting here, ‘he’s the Lightstone you will never be’.”

Nelphas continued punching and scratching at Narla’s hand, adding in flailing kicks with his legs which were otherwise hanging uselessly below him as Narla hoisted him a good foot or two off the ground.

“Now that I’m not a Lightstone at all, do you think I should do everyone a favor by showing them what you’re like on the inside?” She was still speaking in a cheerful tone but the clawed hand she held up made it pretty clear how literal she was about showing everyone what was inside Nelphas Lightstone.

Nelphas, for all that he lacked Narla’s physical might, did overshadow her in terms of social power however, which translated into a half dozen of the lackeys he’d been performing for drawing their weapons and calling forth the beginning of their attack spells.

Part of me wanted so see the six or so of them try to take Narla on. I was reasonably sure it would go terrifyingly poorly for them, and likely spiral out of control into a general melee among the assembled First Year Cadets.

Part of me remembered Grammy though and her lessons about how raging crowds created more opportunities for hurting the innocent than the guilty.

“It sounded like he was making a Formal Accusation against my honor,” I said, reaching up to place a restraining touch against Narla’s outstretched arm. “We are required to hear the charges he proposes before issuing a Official Challenge.”

Narla looked at me and raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

I nodded calmly in return and she shrugged before lowering him back to the ground.

“Well then?” I prompted him, not waiting until he’d finished choking a few lungfuls of air through his rapidly bruising throat. “Did you have a Formal Accusation to make against House Riverbond? And if so shall we set the terms of the Trial here and now?”

“There will be no Accusations and no Trials,” Jalaren, the proctor from the Trials said as he strode through our two groups. “Cadets are allowed neither to give nor claim offense. Now break apart and be silent or I will assign you all to the city sewer detail.”

And with that he was gone, continuing his rapid walk to join the other instructors.

Since I was looking for the active mission detail and not the one where my enhanced sense of smell would be a horrible curse, I shrugged and turned my back on Nelphas.

It was a perfect opening.

He really should have tried to hit me, or stab me, or blow me up with some kind of spell.

Well, I mean not if he wanted to live past the next minute, but as a general thing based on what he knew of me, attacking then would have been a really great move.

Except for Narla I guess.

If he’d tried to shoot me with a spell she would have introduced the front of his face to the rear of his skull.

So, points to Nelphas I guess, he was not stupid enough to try for a cheap shot when there was someone demonstrably willing to murder him and eagerly looking for an excuse to do so.

“I’m going to kill you,” he said instead of attacking, wounded pride requiring some form of salve.

“Oh cousin my cousin, we both know you were going to try to kill me no matter I did, now, hopefully, you’ll make a decent attempt at it rather than being such an incredible disappointment.” Narla’s tone didn’t change at all and as far as I could tell from her body language and scent, she really did hope Nelphas would do his best when he tried to kill her and she really wasn’t worried about him succeeding at all.

I took a quick moment to sniff the air again.

Narla was fully human. At least as far as I could tell. 

That confidence though? I was something everyone here was afraid of and I couldn’t begin to match Narla’s level of courage.

“Not hard to see why the boys are falling for her, is it?” Mellina whispered to me, as our two groups parted.

I gave another quick sniff in Ilyan and Yarrin’s direction. 

Yeah. They were not exactly uninterested. Of course the whole area was basically a giant hormone cloud with all the young humans who were milling about but theirs had the tinge of purpose to it.

“Think they’re aware of that yet?” I whispered back.

“They’ll figure it out,” Mellina whispered. “Eventually. Probably.”

Yarrin flashed us both a frown, reminding us that while we were speaking too quietly for any of the other Cadets to hear us, his magics let him pick up on what we were saying just fine.

Shouting from the far end of the field distracted us all before we had to address that though.

It wasn’t only the Cadets who were getting into brawls worthy of drunken street rats!

One of the instructors was on his back.

Knocked out cold!

And standing over him?

Oh, hi Holman!

Two of the other instructors weren’t exactly holding him back, but had placed themselves partially in front of him with their hands raised in a placating gesture while Jalaren stood to the side, his head bowed as he pinched the bridge of his nose in something like resignation.

I glanced at Yarrin with probably five times too much delight in my eyes.

“They started talking about who was responsible,” he said. “Bolbrek, the guy who’s laying down there, was apparently the one who had Idrina arrested.”

If I’d seen him or had a functional nose when he and Idrina came into the ruins of the prison I might have been able to guess that but Bolbrek had the same bland old instructor-guy look as the others so maybe not even then.

“Let me guess, he wants to prosecute her immediately for the escape so that they can compel her to tell them where the prisoners went?” I said, trying to think of the most horrible option I could come up with.

“Sort of,” Yarrin said. “He was demanding a Trial by Combat,” he said.

“Cool! She will love that!” Ilyan said, looking far more cheerful than a loving brother should have. On the other hand, this was Idrina we were talking about and he was probably completely correct about her enjoying a little battle for her life and honor.

“A Trial by Combat with the Imperial Knights,” Yarrin said.

The fully trained, fully armed and armored Knights.

“She’ll still be into it,” Ilyan said, though with a touch less second-hand joy and a touch more concern. 

“With the guilty outcome severing her bond with Advisor Enika and replacing it with one to an Advisor of House Lightstone,” Yarrin said.

“What? Why would they do that?” I asked, growing more tired of, but less surprised by, the nonsensical policies of the Academy.

“They can’t,” Ilyan said. “You can’t force an Advisor to break their bonds.”

“You don’t have to,” Mellina said. “Not if they kill her first and bring her back quickly enough.”

“Wait, that’s not possible is it?” I asked, feeling reasonably sure Doxle would have mentioned if it was.

“It’s a theory which has never been successfully tested,” Mellina said. “Usually the pact makers can’t be brought before the bond with their original Advisor dissolves.”

“Then why try?” I asked before the obvious answer smacked me in the face. “Oh. Because they need a scapegoat.”

“But they need to know where the Reaving Beasts are too right?” Ilyan asked, sounding more worried than ever.

“No,” I said with a sigh. “They don’t. The prisoners aren’t causing any trouble they can see. It’s possible they even know that there’s no danger to the city or the Academy. They just need to put on a good show of ‘doing everything they can’.”

“Will she let us rescue her?” Mellina asked.

“From a fight?” Ilyan asked. “Only if we kill her first.”

“Holman’s demanding that they bring the matter before the High Council,” Yarrin said. “It sounds like the lead Knight, Reldin, isn’t in favor of that though. He’s saying the Imperial Academy has full authority over disciplining its Cadets. They…uh, they own us?”

“Pretty sure that’s not how it works,” Narla said. “Pretty sure that’s not how any of this works.”

“Pretty sure the guys in all the armor can make it work however they want,” Ilyan said.
“Reldin mentioned something about how Idrina would be an ideal candidate alive or dead and they should consider this an opportunity? I don’t get what they’re saying at all there?” Yarrin said, turning to us to see if anyone else had a clue.

Unfortunately I did and I felt the wonderful lunch I’d had threatening to make a return trip just thinking about it.

“Remember the dead bodies I saw with the magic thread going through them?” I asked.

“They want her for that?” Ilyan’s horror at the idea was more or less the same as mine.

“They had better hope not,” was all that I could say. The picture of Idrina’s neck slashed open with magic thread stitching it closed passed through my mind and evoked a response strong enough that I had to fight against transforming into something really awful to prevent that from ever happening. 

I had no idea if I could handle a squad of Imperial Knights. I had no idea if they were going to be stupid enough to push me into trying it either though.

“Instructor Jalaren suggested they ask Idrina if she’s willing to stand trial or wants her House to intervene,” Yarrin said. “And people are agreeing with that. Or. Wait. Not Holman.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Holman’s not an idiot. Why is no one asking Enika? Isn’t she supposedly responsible for Idrina’s behavior?”

“She was called away this morning and won’t be back till tomorrow,” Ilyan said. “She sent a message off to Idrina and me last night. Told us ‘not to do anything she would disapprove of’’.”

“I thought you broke away from Ironbriar?” Narla asked.

“Oh, yeah, they all hate me now,” Ilyan said. “But that doesn’t mean anything for a pact with an Advisor.”

“Couldn’t she have stopped you though?” Narla asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Ilyan said and paused for a moment. “Huh, wonder why she didn’t?”

“Holman’s leaving,” Yarrin said, interrupting Ilyan’s ruminations. “The others overruled him. They’re going to ask Idrina whether she wants a Trial by Combat or one before the High Council.”

I already knew what her answer was going to be. Ilyan already knew what her answer was going to be. Anyone who’d spent two minutes with the beautiful basket case knew what her answer was going to be. 

The more I thought about it though, the more I found myself sliding over to her point of view.

A trial before the High Council would cost Ironbriar all sorts of political capital (assuming Grammy’s descriptions of most trial results being effectively purchased was accurate). Even if the cost was low, that would tarnish what had to be a sterling reputation that she’d built up by being such an overachiever. Every time her name was brought up, there’d be the specter of being caught at something and failing to protect her House from the consequences.

In what I had to imagine would be the first time in her life, Idrina would be a liability to her House (however small and inconsequential that liability might be).

Trial by Combat though would allow her to completely clear her name. 

In fact, beating an Imperial Knight in full regalia would add a fair amount of luster to her name. Not only would she be cleared of any charges, she’d have the unwritten title of ‘the cadet who beat the Empire’s best’.

And, from what I’d seen, she probably could.

If I’d been in her place, I probably would have made a different decision, in part because to win a Trial by Combat with an Imperial Knight would have required revealing far more of what I was than would allow me to retain the privilege of not being hunted on sight. 

Also House Riverbond couldn’t really be hurt by anything I did. All of the real members of it were well beyond any pain this world could throw at them.

“You have to stop her!” Holman had chosen to exit the Tourney area through the mass of cadets who were waiting for the next Evaluations to start. He’d chosen to exit right through my group in fact. “Call Doxle, tell him I need him, here, now. This is madness.”

“He’s back at his house,” I said. “You can find him there.”

“No, I can’t,” Holman said. “He changed the misdirection spell on the door after my last visit. He always does that. He thinks its funny. Or mysterious. Or…” lacking words, Holman settled for an incoherent growl.

“I can take you there then?” I offered but wondered if I really should.

First, I had no idea what Doxle could do to change things since he wasn’t Idrina’s Advisor. Second, while I could see Holman was panicking over the thought of Idrina fighting for her life, I didn’t think his panic was warranted.

I’d only fought her twice. The length of my association with Idrina Ironbriar fit between less than a handful of sunrises and sunset, but even with only that, I believed in her.

Or believed in her fighting prowess at least. 

She could handle an Imperial Knight.

Especially if her life and/or freedom was on the line.

If I was completely honest with myself, the thought of seeing her fight with absolutely no restraints was kind of thrilling.

And that was a terrible reason for not to do what Holman was asking.

Plus, again being honest with myself, I had a much better card to play to keep her from taking part in this idiocy.

“There’s no time,” Holman said. “They’re going to ask her as soon as they have the tourney field setup. They’re going to ask her as they take her to her Trial. She’s not going to have any choice at all!”

Maybe I was primed to be angry at the Academy.

Maybe the rage which had driven Grammy to cut off contact with her Imperial peers was coloring my impression of things.

Maybe I’d had too many shocks in too little time, from being beaten and jailed because I didn’t dare reveal what I was, to the maddening suggestion that Trina was here, to Kelthas’ death, to everything else the Imperial Academy was. 

Maybe all that was true, and maybe responding with anger and rage wasn’t a healthy method of handling things, but the image of the Academy doing it’s best to kill yet another student – no, not just any student – Idrina – who was clearly the best student here – relit the embers in my heart that exhaustion and despair had threatened to snuff out forever.

“We don’t need Doxle,” I said placing my hand on Holman’s arm and squeezing. I didn’t hurt him, I simply made it clear that I was serious when I said that. Which was enough to hurt him, but I didn’t break him is the important thing. “Where’s she being held now?”

“They repaired one of the cells they say she destroyed,” Holman said. “But what can you…”

I didn’t bother letting him finish.

He was right. We didn’t have time.

Mellina, understood what I was asking for when I nodded to her, and in the middle of Holman’s question, shadows swallowed us and we were off.

“I left Narla and the boys behind,” Mellina said as we ran back towards the prison-stables.

“Good. They’ve done enough and if people see them back there they may not notice that we’re missing,” I said. Yarrin was small but with Darla and Ilyan there, Mellina and I were easy to overlook, or to assume we hidden behind someone.

“You’ll need to be careful what you tell her,” Mellina said. “And what you promise.”

Because while I could endanger myself as much as I wanted, it was challenging to do so without also putting my housemates in peril, and that was not something I could allow. Idrina could handle a fight to death, I had boundless faith in that. My housemates though? Not as much. Narla would have the best chance, but for as powerful as she was, I suspected an Imperial Knight would have the answer for dealing with the kind of things she could do since her abilities weren’t exactly subtle.

“I will be,” I said. “I owe you far too much to let anything happen to you. Any of you.”

“That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” Mellina said, but by then we’d arrived at the shaft down to the prison.

Which was guarded.

I mimed breaking his neck, not because that was my actual plan but as a short hand for combat in general. Mellina rolled her eyes at that, shook her head and simply walked past him.

It wasn’t that he stepped aside that surprised me, it was that she was able to open the lid to the shaft down and he paid her exactly zero attention.

If people knew what I could do, they would be eminently justified in being terrified of me. It baffled me that there people who knew what Mellina was capable of who had also put her in a position where she cut ties with her House. Granted she seemed to merely be happy to free of them, but if they’d angered her? 

I was not going to anger her. For really any reason.

We proceeded down into the prison to find in the short time since I’d been gone, not a lot had been done with it. There were plenty of people taking notes, and cataloging items, but the general ‘clean up all the broken stuff’ effort hadn’t really begun in ernest yet.

Idrina was standing in the smallest of the cells, cuffed hands and neck which sent unpleasant chills down my spine. In place of a door, someone had scattered silver dust in an odd pattern on the ground and lit it ablaze forming a one inch high wall of flame which apparently kept her from leaving her ‘prison’.

I mimed brushing the dust with my foot and Mellina shook her head again.

“Give me a moment to extend this spell and we can talk to her without anyone noticing.”

Right. Never ever going to make Mellina mad.

I felt the shadows widen around us and caught a bit of the flow of the magic she was using. There was an echo of familiarity to it, not quite something I knew, but something like a second cousin to the magics I was used to working with.

I didn’t have time to think on that though since the moment Mellina’s spell embraced her, Idrina’s eyes shot open and focused directly on us.

Surprise passed instantly into confusion when she saw who had appeared before her.

“You’re here?” she asked.

“Yeah. Mellina’s magic is making it possible,” I said.

“You shouldn’t be,” Idrina said.

“I know. You shouldn’t be either,” I said, stepping forward but not over the line of burning silver dust.

“It’s my fault the Reaving Beasts escaped,” she said. “I deserve this.”

“It is very much not your fault, and you absolutely deserve better than this,” I said.

“I’m not going to speak of seeing you here,” she said. It was the answer to the obvious plea I would be making, assuming I was desperate to avoid the punishment she was signing up for.

“You should,” I said. “In fact I think you have to.”

“Why?” Idrina asked. “I haven’t said anything to them yet. You’re safe, they don’t know that you were here at all.”

“Because if you go to Trial, I’ll have to tell them the truth and it would look a lot better for you if you bring it up first and then I confirm it,” I said. It wasn’t safe or wise, but my Advisor wasn’t away for the day, and I knew at this point that he had my back.

“Why would you do that?” Idrina asked.

“Because they are going to kill you,” I said. “They are looking for someone to pin this on and that someone should be the person who’s actually responsible not the one who did her duty and has done nothing wrong in her life.”

“I killed you,” Idrina said, daring me to disagree.

“Which was your duty,” I said. “Also, I’m noticeably not dead.”

“It wasn’t duty,” she said. “It was fear. I reacted out of fear. That wasn’t how the duel was supposed to go.”

That was oddly comforting? But also not something I had the time to unpack just then.

“It doesn’t matter. You don’t deserve to die for this. I don’t either but between the two of us, if they’re going to take a shot at someone, I damn well want it to be me.”

“No,” Idrina said. “You’re not responsible for this.” She gestured to the devastation around us. “This was my carelessness. This was my mistake. Whatever you came here intending to do, I was the one who lost control and allowed this to happen.”

“Only because I choked you out,” I said.

“Weakness isn’t an excuse,” she said.

“You’re not weak!” I probably shouldn’t have screamed that, but Mellina’s spell seemed to hold through it. “You’re not weak and you have nothing to prove to anyone. You know if we went again, you would win. I know that too and I’ll admit it right here and now if you will just tell them the truth.”

A strange, sad smile crossed her lips as she met my eyes. 

“What I say won’t matter. I can either face this alone, or I can drag you down with me. If you think they are looking for someone to blame for this, believe me they will be just as happy to assign that blame to two as to one. Please, I know I don’t have the right to ask this, but please, believe in me. I will not fail in this Trial. I am strong enough to keep us both safe.”

I wanted to argue more, to make her see that she didn’t need to go it alone like that, but that was when the instructors arrived to take her away.